New frontiers of Islamist extremism in Africa
23 Sep 2014|
The Somali National Army and troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) successfully executed a joint operation in the Lower Shabelle Region of Somalia today, capturing the key town of Qoryooley from the extremist group Al-Shabaab.

It’d be easy for the public to believe that al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism is a new feature of the African security landscape, yet the ideology, personnel and links between groups have been growing for the past 25 years. Still, it’s really only over the past decade that various groups that operated with a predominantly nationalistic agenda have increasingly become aligned with al-Qaeda in name, ideology, methodologies of attack and tactics. A new jihadism is spreading across Africa.

Today ASPI releases a Special Report that examines three of those groups—Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab and Boko Haram—and the way they’ve evolved, especially in terms of the linkages between them and their adoption of al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics. All of those groups are separate from the al-Qaeda core. They haven’t taken up the al-Qaeda model because they’ve been told to, but they’re emulating it. They’re all looking to become dispersed, decentralised movements that frame local grievances in the language of the global jihad. They’re sharing tactics, training and personnel to further their respective causes while operating across national boundaries to escape capture and raise funds through criminal activities. Their attacks are becoming more ambitious and audacious and, if left unchallenged, could lead to the formation of terrorist safe havens.

Western governments are concerned that conflicts from northern Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel to the Horn of Africa are becoming more closely intertwined. Despite the relative success of the French military intervention in Mali in 2013, evidence shows Islamist groups in Africa have a growing geographical reach and ambitions. For the international community, the danger lies not so much in the immediate threat to Western targets from African Islamists, but in the potential future creation of a failed state that would provide a base for training and radicalising large numbers of Islamists—as Afghanistan did during the 1990s and Mali had the potential to do in 2012 and 2013.

In the meantime, one of the most dangerous ways that groups in Africa contribute to the global terrorist threat is in the consistent flow of personnel into international combat zones where al-Qaeda/Islamist fighters are needed. Leaders of the three groups discussed here fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and the groups supplied many fighters to the Iraq conflict in the 2000s. That pattern continues today: around 200 Algerians have fought in Syria, along with 2,000 Tunisians, around 1,500 Moroccans and unknown numbers from Libya, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Eritrea, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia and Sudan. The proven capacity of AQIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab to train and share fighting and bomb-making skills with new recruits, and then deliver those recruits into intensive front-line fighting roles in areas such as Syria and Iraq, will be the groups’ most immediate international impact.

There are no clear solutions for African states combating the Islamist groups that are ramping up the number, frequency and severity of attacks on the continent, but any solution will necessarily be complex. It’ll need to address not only the Islamists’ direct security challenge, but also the underlying socioeconomic drivers that encourage young men to join their ranks. That’ll require continued investment in strengthening regional cooperation on intelligence-sharing as well as raising the level of border security and policing efforts to minimise the groups’ operating space and ability to raise funds. The key to African nations’ responses will be winning back the hearts and minds of local populations, harnessing their cooperation, and starving the groups of local support and the ability to continue unrestricted cross-border movements.

What does all of that mean for Australia? Australia’s political, diplomatic, commercial and defence ties in Africa have grown over the past decade. Increasingly, Australian mining companies are looking to Africa to expand their investment opportunities, meaning the government will increasingly find itself having to understand the African security context with which its commercial interests are entwined.

Firstly, DFAT and the intelligence community need to keep an appropriate focus on Islamist extremism in Africa. That shouldn’t be allowed to drift when Australia steps down from the UN Security Council. Australian diplomatic representation in Africa should, at a minimum, stay at current levels, given the growth of private sector and people-to-people links between Australia and African countries.

Australia could well be called upon to participate in some form in peacekeeping roles in Africa, following on from its modest involvement in Sudan. In order to do that, Defence needs a solid environmental intelligence base to support its deployments.

There are clear links between terror groups and organised crime, piracy and drug trafficking. The Royal Australian Navy has been heavily involved in countering a number of large drug shipments out of Africa, most recently capturing $280 million worth of cannabis off the coast of Somalia. Australia should do more to assist African capacity-building in countering organised crime, and expect that it will have to do more to help, especially in the Indian Ocean.

The government should consider a modest lift in defence engagement, including offering some training to Nigerian and Kenyan armed forces in counter-terrorism operations. That could include building modest special-forces connections with those countries, mindful of the importance of good contacts when Australian interests are potentially engaged.

Unfortunately, if the situation in parts of Africa is allowed to continue on its current trajectory, there’s a danger we’ll see a rise in instability in the regions where the groups operate and, consequently, in their growth and ambition.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI and director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.